Robin Browning conductor Oxford Orchestra 2016Robin Browning conductor Oxford Orchestra 2016

Interview with the Oxford Student

Back in May I was invited to conduct one of the top student orchestras in the UK – Oxford University Orchestra. Our performance in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, coupled with Debussy’s La Mer, prompted rave reviews (more of these later) and an almost immediate re-invitation. In terms of their scheduling, it was nice to be sandwiched in between such esteemed company as Daniel Harding and Hugh Brunt, as it were.

As part of the pre-concert publicity, I gave an interview with the Oxford Student newspaper. As you can imagine, being Oxford, this was a little more probing than a many interviews often are – full of erudite questions, and possibly even some erudite answers (I hope). Despite the event being a few months ago, I thought the Q&A is worth reproducing here.

With many thanks to James Chater and OxStu magazine


On Saturday 21st May 2016, Robin Browning will conduct the Oxford University Orchestra (OUO) in Debussy’s masterpiece La Mer and Bruckner’s  Symphony no.7 in E Major at the Sheldonian Theatre. Robin is an established conductor, performer and music-educator. Praised as an “expert musician and conductor” by Sir Charles Mackerras, he is a passionate advocate for music and for the arts in general.

In the interview, Robin speaks to OxStu about working with OUO, the repertoire they will perform, and his admiration of Bruckner.

This the first time that you’ve conducted OUO; are you excited about the prospect of working with the orchestra and in Oxford?

Very much so. I know OUO have a history of inviting fine, established conductors to work with them as guests, and it’s great to be in such good company. I felt sure it would be a strong orchestra – quick-witted, aware and flexible – even after one rehearsal this turns out to be true. I regret to say I know Oxford far less than I should – it’s only my third visit – but I hope this will change.

With OUO, there’s a fairly short period of rehearsing with an orchestra you don’t know. What are the particular challenges and benefits associated with this type of preparation?

In many ways I prefer it – it limits the amount of time one can faff about, and focuses the mind! I’m a firm believer that, unless you’re Carlos Kleiber, a conductor’s work always seems to expand to fill the time available. Having said that, you need good players who respond well and think enough in between rehearsals, too. It’s similar to what one expects with professional orchestras – fewer sessions, clumped together shortly before the gig.

Perhaps, going on from that, what do you enjoy most about working with students?

Open, inquiring minds. Quite apart from the considerable talent within the orchestra, I’ve already sensed a generosity of spirit from the ensemble as a whole. This isn’t always the case – either with students or pros. With OUO, I get the impression that every single player wants it to be a really strong performance.

Arguably, the two works we’ll be performing couldn’t be aesthetically further apart. Firstly, how do you think they’ll complement each other?

It’s fascinating. They’re kind of odd bedfellows, but I think they work well. Bruckner can appear so formal, monolithic and weighty. I used to programme his music with other Austro-Germanic music (Wagner, Strauss, etc) and it can all get a bit much. Debussy is another world entirely. Plus, despite the apparent contrasts, there are subtle similarities when one comes to rehearse them side-by-side: there’s more of a “modular” side to Debussy than one might think…

Secondly, what are the performative difficulties associated with moving between Debussy and Bruckner?

One must take care to find the other world, to breath the “new” air when crossing between the two of them. There are enormous differences in colour and timbre, of course – but also in the way one has to breathe, where one chooses to centre the sound, and how to balance and structure chords – they must all be approached differently. Ultimately, as a conductor, I must be clear to inhabit the appropriate world and not let one bleed through into the other, and strive to bring the orchestra with me in that regard.

What is it that makes Debussy’s style of impressionism distinctive for you?

I think particularly the use of light. He not only finds a breath-taking array of colours, but dances with the interplay of light, pretty much throughout La Mer. Like a series of brushstrokes, his rhythmic cells, dabbed across the entire orchestra, create a constantly shifting aural tableau which is then viewed from different angles, each time with different light. It’s not just the sea he captures in La Mer – he also captures the changing light.

Critics have also noted that the score of La mer in many ways anticipates those of film scores. Do any particular episodes from la mer strike you as such?

Well, I guess all those colours can easily be re-purposed for film. In truth, it doesn’t strike me so overtly like film-music, perhaps apart from some general tones and colours. The Bruckner does far more so, to me – harmonically so, and in terms of instrumental colour, for example strings and horns: think John Barry or Hans Zimmer (depending on circumstance)

Debussy resisted calling the work a symphony outright – but many since have labelled it as such? How do you think it resists or perhaps even supports such a label?

In that way it’s a curious juxtaposition in this concert, being placed with Bruckner – something we’d regard as a “typical” symphony. Whilst La Mer may embody the true original meaning of the word, being as it is packed full of sounds and motifs, all developing organically, I don’t view it symphonically

From just one rehearsal with you it was clear that you have a particular affinity with Bruckner. Could you briefly sum up why that is in a few sentences?

Harmony. Pure and simple. Yes, there’s FAR more to Bruckner than that, I know. But most conductors are harmony geeks (I certainly am) and he accesses parts of the brain – and heart, if you like – that few others reach. Plus there’s this naivety in a lot of it, coupled with melancholy (not quite as much as Elgar – no one’s in that league) which I find desperately touching.

You mentioned a striking relationship between Bruckner and Schubert – immediately after you said that, a lot of the music suddenly made sense to me (the shifts in harmony particularly) – could you describe the effect and how Bruckner achieves this?

It’s about seeing Bruckner as the natural heir to Schubert, rather than Wagner, despite the obvious connections between the 7th and his idol. Because his writing can be (superficially) so “blocky”, many interpreters sacrifice his extraordinary sense of line, and the shifts of colour and balance he creates throughout such long spans become lost. One often hears a monolithically sculpted edifice of sound. This, to me, is more suited to Shostakovich – and maybe the early Bruckner symphonies where his architectural sense is less developed.

Finally, what is it that individuates Bruckner 7 from his other symphonies?

Maybe it’s light – and how appropriate that is, when we’re coupling it with La Mer. He lets more light shine through this symphony than the others which surround it, and that’s apparent right from the very opening bars: bright, radiant and somehow incandescent to the symphony’s very end.


Mahler - and a bit about Life

Not everyone "gets" Mahler. Whether they're musicians, or not.

Some people can't spend a day without it. Remember that scene in Educating Rita, where Julie Walters is met at the door by Maureen Lipman - complete with Mahler 6's finale blaring away behind her? Indelibly etched upon my memory of childhood was the phrase "wouldn't you just DIE without Mahler?"

 

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And then there are plenty of musicians who can't stand the stuff, avoid it like the proverbial, ask for time off the orchestral schedule whenever it's on the programme, that kind of thing. I'm most definitely not one of them. I suppose there must be people out there who are placidly indifferent to Mahler, although quite how that's possible is beyond me - Mahler is all-involving and consuming (if you're doing it right), and remaining dispassionate is, well, I just can't imagine. Mahler is like Marmite: you either love it, or you hate it.

I've just conducted two performances of the 6th symphony, and have No 5 coming up the weekend after I write. Here's a little audio-glimpse into the recent performance (a film - with some longer extracts, rehearsal, and interviews - is planned for later in the spring.)


These Mahler 6 performances were with the fantastic young musicians of Southampton University Symphony Orchestra. All 109 of them, on stage, for an 85-minute epic. What strikes me now, only days later, is how many of them feel the gaping hole in their lives, now that Mahler isn't filling it. I know this because of that eternally-accurate arbiter of fact and knowledge: people's facebook statuses. Many of them write as if they've lost something, or even someone. Gloomy and despondent. Truly a post-Mahler malaise.

Thing is, for the vast majority of them, it was their first experience playing Mahler, any Mahler. Imagine never having really heard Mahler before, let alone played any - and suddenly being hit with the ferocity of emotion that is Mahler 6. At the first rehearsal I told them that this will be a journey - and at its end there will be tears, and longing for more. Few, if any, believed me at the time, but I know how poignantly many of them will be feeling it now.

And here's the crucial point - this is only the START of the journey. There are another 9 symphonies, of course, and songs, Das Klagende Lied... In turn, Mahler will lead to Berg, Shostakovich - and over the shoulder to Bruckner. It can unlock all kinds of things. Imagine the harmonic possibilities suddenly unleashed inside a Mahler-fuelled brain... Or klangfarben, as vivid and intoxicating to a musician now as it would've been to (say) a young Schoenberg, or Bruno Walter, a century ago.

Deep down, some of the players will now be different musicians than when they began this Mahler journey. Somehow, they will approach their craft differently. And not all the members are studying music, either. Few things warm me more than reading that a medical student has listened to the entire symphony twice more in two days, and that a geographer can't wait for her next fix of Mahler. They'll flock to the Proms this summer - always plenty of Mahler there. Who knows.

It will have changed lives - only a little tiny bit, perhaps, but it all counts. This is the power of music, and of Mahler. 109 young musicians may be wandering around like lost souls right now, but it'll pass. What is most vital is that they'll remember it for the rest of their lives, no matter where they're destined, and however high they climb as musicians.


Mayhew and Marvelling Young Minds


Just recently, I was lucky enough to share the stage with the fabulous James Mayhew. Every year we work together, preparing, rehearsing and performing our incredibly successful series of Family Concerts. These are a highlight of the de Havilland Philharmonic season, attracting huge crowds - largely, but not exclusively, made up of youngsters with their parents in tow. Grown-ups come along with their kids - and end up loving it. And the children adore it too: a telltale sign of this is how quiet they are, particularly during the music. As a conductor, even with my back turned to the auditorium 99% of the time, I can always tell when an audience is really listening, deeply tuned-in to all the activities on stage. 

Undeniably the star of the show is artist, presenter and master story-teller James Mayhew. He has a quietly engaging charisma, drawing audiences into his fantastical world, whether through speech (often delivered as verse, and always adhering to the true character, plot and drama of any classical masterwork) or through those wonderful paintings.

Thanks to the technical marvels of 21st century HD-cameras, coupled with a clever technical crew and a well-appointed concert hall, James is able to paint on a massive canvas. All his work is projected super-size above us all at the back of the stage: just watch the film above to see it all in action. There's even a glimpse into the technical box, mid-concert, during our performance of Superman.

James is not only a deeply expressive, brilliant artist, but a warm, involving speaker and presenter too. Like me, he cares deeply and passionately about classical music... about its depth, colours and delivery. James and I won't compromise, abridge nor water-down any of the orchestral "classics". We feel that children, and adults, not only can but should experience a full-size symphony orchestra performing classical masterpieces. Either in their entirety, or as close as we can get. No trimming. No sanitising. No dumbing-down. 

And we trust each other implicitly. Having performed together so often, we know what works for one another. "I think we make a great team, Robin and I," says James. "He is that rare thing - a conductor with a sense of humour. The sense of fun is palpable to the audience and our concerts together are the highlight of my year." Thanks James - that's praise indeed!

He, too, is a joy to spend time with - whether talking about comic timing, brush strokes and speed of delivery on-stage... Or where he gets his sheriff's badge from:

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Of course, James and I don't simply play the music. All I do is rehearse it, conduct it, perform it. That's my whole (wonderful) career in a nutshell. Sometimes I speak to the crowd, introduce James, or act as a temporary stage-prop. Together we pace the concert - me syncing with him - like accompanying a good soloist. He uses verse, commentaries, little asides - whatever the drama needs, and I time the music to the cadence of his text. In turn, James times his artwork neatly and deftly with our music-making. Watch the showreel above (or any of the footage here) and you'll see this very thing in action: look at the very end of Superman, where James times the final swoosh of the superhero's flowing cape elegantly in sync with the final musical cut-off.

Classical music is the most extraordinary experience for young children and their families. If our concerts make just one youngster pick up a cello or trombone with increased fervour, or pushes a young lad or lady to revisit a half-finished composition, then the whole venture has been a success. No question. Anything that connects youngsters with their inner, musical pilot-light - making them yearn for music, to make music, to experience music - can only be a good thing. 

With the axe about to fall on music services across the UK (as I write, Bromley, Redbridge and Wiltshire are facing this - they could easily not exist by summer: what a TRAGEDY that would be) - anything which gets the power of music over to youngsters is desperately needed. We all need to work on cultivating the audiences, and musicians, instrumentalists, singers, of tomorrow. All of us need to do this, starting now. Like we mean it. With passion, integrity, and humility. I'd like to think that James and I do our little bit in this regard, but I'd love to do much more.


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"Working with Robin is the highlight of my year," James says. "I couldn't wish for a better colleague for this mission we both share." And I feel exactly the same. The reason we both do this is because we love what we do: getting the magic of music across to people of all ages, particularly youngsters. When we each watch the youngsters marvel at what they witness unfolding on stage, we know it's the single best drug there is, for professional musician and professional artist alike. This is why, no matter how many books James may write, and how many Mahler symphonies I may conduct, our projects together remain a cornerstone of my concert life, and of James' artistic work. And it's why both of us long to do many more - so we can see those marvelling young minds, first-hand, loving every minute of the music and the art.

And thank you James - for all our concerts together. Here's to many more to come. Long may it continue!


"Heroes & Villains" Family Concert

complete repertoire:
Copland - Billy the Kid Suite
Grieg - Peer Gynt (Morning Mood, Death of Åse, Solveig's Song, Hall of the Mountain King)
Rossini - William Tell Overture
Williams - Superman Theme


Beethoven and Beethovathon

Despite being a celebratory year for those two Scandi-giants Sibelius and Nielsen, a number of my opening concerts this year have a distinctly Beethovenian theme. Take this weekend, for example: an all-Beethoven evening on Saturday, with an award-winning soloist, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Care. We open with Coriolan - it's always a huge joy to conduct this overture. A display of pure rhythm, yet partnered with one of the most touching second subjects in the repertoire. I still remember sitting there, dewy-eyed, minutes after the postman delivered a box-set of Carlos Kleiber DVDs. This was the first time I'd seen his live performance of this piece, only days after DG released it, with Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

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The 8th symphony completes the first half, undoubtedly a more challenging undertaking for all - including the conductor. And (to quote Paavo Järvi - one of my teachers - in a rehearsal I was lucky enough to catch in Bremen) "clear proof that, by this point in his life Beethoven was profoundly deaf" - referring, tongue-in-cheek, to the insane timpani writing in bars 480 & 490 of the finale. Go check it out. It always makes me smile, as it did in Bremen. Of course, it was helped by the superb timpanist in the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Stefan Rapp. He never needs much excuse to play insanely.

Post-interval, the Violin Concerto, with Joo Yeon Sir - currently a junior fellow at London's RCM and embarking on a bit of a Beethoven odyssey herself. It's one of my favourite concertos, for any instrument, by any composer. I remember as a kid, aged about 13, stealing mum's knitting needles and swiping my way through it in my bedroom, accompanied by that famous recording with Schneiderhan and the Berlin Phil. Mum blamed me for bending all her needles. I blame that recording, and this piece, for kickstarting my conducting career.

The week after, on Saturday 7th Feb, I accompany another fine soloist in another marvellous concerto - Cordelia Williams in the fourth piano concerto. Again, breathtaking music - and I can't wait. Full details of this concert, and the Macmillan all-Beethoven programme, are HERE on this website. I'd love to see some of you at one of them!

Finally, to another charity event - a huge project in aid of Comic Relief Red Nose Day 2015. On Saturday 21 March, along with many conductor colleagues, I'm involved in the Beethovathon - a simply wonderful, not to mention utterly, utterly bonkers project to perform all nine symphonies. Yes, all nine. In one day. And in order. Which is, by the way, if you're going to undertake such a thing, the only good way to do it (today's top tip for those planning to emulate this project in future).

We're performing in the acclaimed acoustics of the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton, in four little (or not so little) concerts, spanning the whole day from 11am until after dark. Full details of this are HERE on the Beethovathon website - please take a look, and don't leave that site until you've (a) bought tickets; (b) popped the date into your diary; and (c) clicked on Ludwig's red nose. Disclaimer: I abdicate all responsibility for this crude ploy, as I didn't design the site. It is rather amusing, though.

This is a potentially huge fundraiser. We're determined to raise well over £10K -- but can only do that with your help. Please would you get involved? Come along for even a small part of the day, especially if you're a physiotherapist or osteopath (!) - and send some money via the just giving page.

I love the fact that Beethoven's incredible music - concertos, symphonies, and all the rest - is raising passions, and raising for charity more than ever. Long may it continue - may every year be a Beethoven year!